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On February 3, 2005, President George Bush, with Karl Rove watching, found himself speaking in Great Falls, Montana. It was billed as a "town meeting" and Bush was complimentary and gracious: ("Beautiful town full of great people. I was touched by the number of people that came out and waved."). Of course, Bush was in Montana to sell his fake Social Security tonic.
And the President was just delighted to be in the Big Sky, where there are more cowboy hats then ties.( Nice to be in the part of the world where the cowboy hats outnumber the ties.- applause – Thanks for coming. Gosh, it’s wonderful to be back in Montana. What a fabulous state, full of really decent, honorable people.) Left unsaid, but what Bush and his studio audience knew, is the really decent, honorable people wearing cowboy hats are the ones who vote Republican.
All in all – a Karl Rove show, scripted and edited from beginning to end. The hand picked panelists, cotton candy questions and the enthusiastic crowd, all of it served in large bowls of marshmallow flavored mush..
Tickets to this "public town hall meeting" were carefully distributed by the Montana Republican hierarchy while Rove’s troops closely supervised the actual event.
And there were other precautions. As Jesse Branch, a 21-year-old Great Falls volunteer usher told Bloomberg News: "We were told automatically to stop people that had protest signs, or any type of sign, and if they tried getting in then we would ask to see their ticket and then rip it up.”
Which is understandable. Karl didn’t want to see anything unpleasant, you know a like a sign asking "Where’s Jeff?" At the time of the visit, Karl’s once favorite journalist, the former ace White House correspondent for Talon News, Jeff Gannon along with his nocturnal moonlighting as a gay prostitute, were hot news.
And there was another possible problem, Brian Schweitzer. And you never know with Brian.
You see, it had already been reported to Rove that the new Montana governor, unlike Senator Max Baucus, might not be their kind of guy, a fun guy as Bush would put it. (And I want to thank Max Baucus for being here. We have worked a lot together in four years. You know, we’ve confronted a lot of things in this country and I appreciate working with you, Max. It’s been a lot of fun.)
So Karl wasn’t concerned about Max. But some joker suddenly popping up on stage in front of the TV cameras with a "Schweitzer for President" billboard may have been Karl Rove’s Montana nightmare.
As for Bush, who considers curiosity a vice, and with his golden spoon background, a chamber-of-commerce, cowboy hat Montana was as far as his imagination would take him.. This Montana was the only place George Bush could ever be, a land of trophy homes, Lewis and Clark, noble vigilantes, condos for millionaire ski bums and John Wayne cowboys. All in all, a tiresome Montana village, one that exists in countless clichés, slogans and real estate brochures. All of which makes trophy home Montana the state’s hot growth industry. And gated communities, once unknown or even imagined in the Big Sky, are here to stay.
For the U.S. Census Bureau notes in 1990 Montana had 276 houses worth $300,000 or more. By 2000, that figure had climbed to 4,735. It would be no surprise today, in 2005, that the number now tops 10,000.
In addition, the 2000 census added a new category of homes in Montana – those costing $1 million or more of which there were 324. God only knows what it is today.
A recent Associated Press story noted a 5,700 acre ranch east of Great Falls has a $7.2 million price tag; another 30,000 acres in the heart of Montana goes for $12.5 million; and 416 acres near Livingston for $3.8 million. And real big money is needed if you want a 17,000-acre spread (included is a house featured in Architectural Digest) listed at $25.9 million.
Of course to outsiders from large cities and high tax brackets, Montana property is bargain basement pickings. Take Kalispell, Whitefish and the Flathead area.
The most expensive Flathead County home for sale in 1984 was $199,500. In 2004, it was $13.5 million and the median housing price was $186,500. Of 974 homes listed for sale in Flathead County at the beginning of the year just 24 cost less than $100,000.
And up in Brian Schweitzer’s Whitefish, the median home price is now $325,000. And spiffy townhouses in a new residential neighborhood called Slopeside start at a one $million
Of course, the Flathead is fanatical Bush country, with big bucks and the Christian Coalition calling the shots. Even Whitefish’s own, Governor Brian Schweitzer, had his clock cleaned in Flathead County,.losing 58 to 39 percent to the uninspiring Bob Brown. John Kerry struggled for 30 percent in his race against Bush but doing better then Al Gore who punched in at 27 percent in 2000.
And if you don’t like the Flathead you can always try Bozeman or Big Sky in Gallatin County.
In Bozeman itself, the average sales price of a house in 2004 was $256,49.
Which isn’t bad compared to Big Sky where the average 3-bedroom comes in at three quarters of a $million on average. Still there are some Big Sky bargains. They say $450,000 and some change gets you in at Cowboy Heaven Cabins. Imagine that, Cowboy Heaven right here in Montana.
But it still takes $475,000 and up to move in at Saddle Ridge Condominiums. And Powder Ridge Cabins are a little pricey to some but others consider them a bargain at $ 575,000-$950,000
Of course, most of Montana is still a state where the median income falls below $28,000 a year. A state that ranks at the very bottom or close of all U.S.states in many statistics – 50th in average annual pay in 2002 ($26,001), 48th in net farm income per acre in 2002 ($4 per acre) and 46th in average salary for public school teachers ($35,754 in 2003).
And lest we forget, a land where one in four Montanans – more than in any other state in the union- holds down two or more jobs to make ends meet
So Brave New Montana it is. Of course, much of the growth of Brave New Montana is part of the bill for the first round of high-priority tax breaks for the big income brackets.Or the second gift for the same high rollers, the one that virtually eliminates taxes on dividends and capital gains for those raking in $300,000 a year plus.
As for the average Montana guy or gal – if you made $20,000 to $25,000 a year, which is what the largest group of Montana income tax payers made in the year 2003, you got about $60 dollars in tax cuts.Be thankful and say a prayer for your new friends and neighbors.
You see, and it is an undeniable fact of Montana life, many of these high tax cut brackets are becoming our new part-time neighbors. Rolling in tax cut greenbacks and carrying heavy portfolios, they head west. Where they gobble up trophy homes and great scenery in the Big Sky Or condos for rich ski bums in the "last best place." And don’t forget recreational ranching as a hobby
But George Bush wasn’t out here to talk about either housing, poverty or low wages as Harry Truman did in Butte many years ago. And there would be no straying from his studio audience in Great Falls.
JACKIE CORR lives in Butte, Montana. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org